June 17, 2024

KMCKrell

Taste the Home & Environment

The Egyptian pyramid chain was built along the now abandoned Ahramat Nile Branch

Position and morphology of the Ahramat Branch

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery and radar high-resolution elevation data for the Nile floodplain and its desert margins, between south Lisht and the Giza Plateau area, provide evidence for the existence of segments of a major ancient river branch bordering 31 pyramids dating from the Old Kingdom to Second Intermediate Period (2686−1649 BCE) and spanning between Dynasties 3–13 (Fig. 1a). This extinct branch is referred to hereafter as the Ahramat Branch, meaning the “Pyramids Branch” in Arabic. Although masked by the cultivated fields of the Nile floodplain, subtle topographic expressions of this former branch, now invisible in optical satellite data, can be traced on the ground surface by TanDEM-X (TDX) radar data and the Topographic Position Index (TPI). Data analysis indicates that this lateral distributary channel lies between 2.5 and 10.25 km west from the modern Nile River. The branch appears to have a surface channel depth between 2 and 8 m, a channel length of about 64 km and a channel width of 200–700 m, which is similar to the width of the contemporary neighboring Nile course. The size and longitudinal continuity of the Ahramat Branch and its proximity to all the pyramids in the study area implies a functional waterway of great significance.

Fig. 1: The water course of the ancient Ahramat Branch.

a Shows the Ahramat Branch borders a large number of pyramids dating from the Old Kingdom to the 2nd Intermediate Period and spanning between Dynasties 3 and 13. b Shows Bahr el-Libeini canal and remnant of abandoned channel visible in the 1911 historical map (Egyptian Survey Department scale 1:50,000). c Bahr el-Libeini canal and the abandoned channel are overlain on satellite basemap. Bahr el-Libeini is possibly the last remnant of the Ahramat Branch before it migrated eastward. d A visible segment of the Ahramat Branch in TDX is now partially occupied by the modern Bahr el-Libeini canal. e A major segment of the Ahramat Branch, approximately 20 km long and 0.5 km wide, can be traced in the floodplain along the Western Desert Plateau south of the town of Jirza. Location of e is marked in white a box in a. (ESRI World Image Basemap, source: Esri, Maxar, Earthstar Geographics).

A trace of a 3 km river segment of the Ahramat Branch, with a width of about 260 m, is observable in the floodplain west of the Abu Sir pyramids field (Fig. 1b–d). Another major segment of the Ahramat Branch, approximately 20 km long and 0.5 km wide can be traced in the floodplain along the Western Desert Plateau south of the town of Jirza (Fig. 1e). The visible segments of the Ahramat Branch in TDX are now partially occupied by the modern Bahr el-Libeini canal. Such partial overlap between the courses of this canal, traced in the1911 historical maps (Egyptian Survey Department scale 1:50,000), and the Ahramat Branch is clear in areas where the Nile floodplain is narrower (Fig. 1b–d), while in areas where the floodplain gets wider, the two water courses are about 2 km apart. In light of that, Bahr el-Libeini canal is possibly the last remnant of the Ahramat Branch before it migrated eastward, silted up, and vanished. In the course of the eastward migration over the Nile floodplain, the meandering Ahramat Branch would have left behind traces of abandoned channels (narrow oxbow lakes) which formed as a result of the river erosion through the neck of its meanders. A number of these abandoned channels can be traced in the 1911 historical maps near the foothill of the Western Desert plateau proving the eastward shifting of the branch at this locality (Fig. 1b–d). The Dahshur Lake, southwest of the city of Dahshur, is most likely the last existing trace of the course of the Ahramat Branch.

Subsurface structure and sedimentology of the Ahramat Branch

Geophysical surveys using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and Electromagnetic Tomography (EMT) along a 1.2 km long profile revealed a hidden river channel lying 1–1.5 m below the cultivated Nile floodplain (Fig. 2). The position and shape of this river channel is in an excellent match with those derived from radar satellite imagery for the Ahramat Branch. The EMT profile shows a distinct unconformity in the middle, which in this case indicates sediments that have a different texture than the overlying recent floodplain silt deposits and the sandy sediments that are adjacent to this former branch (Fig. 2). GPR overlapping the EMT profile from 600–1100 m on the transect confirms this. Here, we see evidence of an abandoned riverbed approximately 400 m wide and at least 25 m deep (width:depth ratio ~16) at this location. This branch has a symmetrical channel shape and has been infilled with sandy Neonile sediment different to other surrounding Neonile deposits and the underlying Eocene bedrock. The geophysical profile interpretation for the Ahramat Branch at this locality was validated using two sediment cores of depths 20 m (Core A) and 13 m (Core B) (Fig. 3). In Core A between the center and left bank of the former branch we found brown sandy mud at the floodplain surface and down to ~2.7 m with some limestone and chert fragments, a reddish sandy mud layer with gravel and handmade material inclusions at ~2.8 m, a gray sandy mud layer from ~3–5.8 m, another reddish sandy mud layer with gravel and freshwater mussel shells at ~6 m, black sandy mud from ~6–8 m, and sandy silt grading into clean, well-sorted medium sand dominated the profile from ~8 to >13 m. In Core B on the right bank of the former branch we found recently deposited brown sandy mud at the floodplain surface and down to ~1.5 m, alternating brown and gray layers of silty and sandy mud down to ~4 m (some reddish layers with gravel and handmade material inclusions), a black sandy mud layer from ~4–4.9 m, and another reddish sandy mud layer with gravel and freshwater mussel shells at ~5 m, before clean, well-sorted medium sand dominated the profile from 5 to >20 m. Shallow groundwater was encountered in both cores concurrently with the sand layers, indicating that the buried sedimentary structure of the abandoned Ahramat Branch acts as a conduit for subsurface water flow beneath the distal floodplain of the modern Nile River.

Fig. 2: Geophysical survey showing evidence of the abandoned river course of the Ahramat Branch.
figure 2

a Locations of geophysical profile and soil drilling (ESRI World Image Basemap, source: Esri, Maxar, Earthstar Geographics). Photos taken from the field while using the b Electromagnetic Tomography (EMT) and c Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR). d Showing the apparent conductivity profile, e showing EMT profile, and f showing GPR profiles with overlain sketch of the channel boundary on the GPR graph. g Simplified interpretation of the buried channel with the location of the two-soil coring of A and B.

Fig. 3: Deep sediment cores from the southern segment of the Ahramat Branch.
figure 3

It shows two-soil cores, A and core B, with soil profile descriptions, graphic core logs, sediment grain size charts, and example photographs.

Alignment of old and middle kingdom pyramids to the Ahramat Branch

The royal pyramids in ancient Egypt are not isolated monuments, but rather joined with several other structures to form complexes. Besides the pyramid itself, the pyramid complex includes the mortuary temple next to the pyramid, a valley temple farther away from the pyramid on the edge of a waterbody, and a long sloping causeway that connects the two temples. A causeway is a ceremonial raised walkway, which provides access to the pyramid site and was part of the religious aspects of the pyramid itself19. In the study area, it was found that many of the causeways of the pyramids run perpendicular to the course of the Ahramat Branch and terminate directly on its riverbank.

In Egyptian pyramid complexes, the valley temples at the end of causeways acted as river harbors. These harbors served as an entry point for the river borne visitors and ceremonial roads to the pyramid. Countless valley temples in Egypt have not yet been found and, therefore, might still be buried beneath the agricultural fields and desert sands along the riverbank of the Ahramat Branch. Five of these valley temples, however, partially survived and still exist in the study area. These temples include the valley temples of the Bent Pyramid, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure from Dynasty 4; the valley temple of the Pyramid of Sahure from Dynasty 5, and the valley temple of the Pyramid of Pepi II from Dynasty 6. All the aforementioned temples are dated to the Old Kingdom. These five surviving temples were found to be positioned adjacent to the riverbank of the Ahramat Branch, which strongly implies that this river branch was contemporaneously functioning during the Old Kingdom, at the time of pyramid construction.

Analysis of the ground elevation of the 31 pyramids and their proximity to the floodplain, within the study area, helped explain the position and relative water level of the Ahramat Branch during the time between the Old Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period (ca. 2649–1540 BCE). Based on Fig. (4), the Ahramat Branch had a high-water level during the first part of the Old Kingdom, especially during Dynasty 4. This is evident from the high ground elevation and long distance from the floodplain of the pyramids dated to that period. For instance, the remote position of the Bent and Red Pyramids in the desert, very far from the Nile floodplain, is a testament to the branch’s high-water level. On the contrary, during the Old Kingdom, our data demonstrated that the Ahramat Branch would have reached its lowest level during Dynasty 5. This is evident from the low altitudes and close proximity to the floodplain of most Dynasty 5 pyramids. The orientation of the Sahure Pyramid’s causeway (Dynasty 5) and the location of its valley temple in the low-lying floodplain provide compelling evidence for the relatively low water level proposition of the Ahramat Branch during this stage. The water level of the Ahramat Branch would have been slightly raised by the end of Dynasty 5 (the last 15–30 years), during the reign of King Unas and continued to rise during Dynasty 6. The position of Pepi II and Merenre Pyramids (Dynasty 6) deep in the desert, west of the Djedkare Isesi Pyramid (Dynasty 5), supports this notion.

Fig. 4: The ground elevation of 31 pyramids and their proximity to the Nile floodplain.
figure 4

It explains the position and relative water level of the Ahramat Branch during the time between the Old Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period. a Shows positive correlation between the ground elevation of the pyramids and their proximity to the floodplain. b Shows positive correlation between the average ground elevation of the pyramids and their average proximity to the floodplain in each Dynasty. c Illustrates the water level interpretation by Hassan (1986) in Faiyum Lake in correlation to the average pyramids ground elevation and average distances to the floodplain in each Dynasty. d The data indicates that the Ahramat Branch had a high-water level during the first period of the Old Kingdom, especially during Dynasty 4. The water level reduced afterwards but was raised slightly in Dynasty 6. The position of the Middle Kingdom’s pyramids, which was at lower altitudes and in close proximity to the floodplain as compared to those of the Old Kingdom might be explained by the slight eastward migration of the Ahramat Branch.

In addition, our analysis in Fig. (4), shows that the Qakare Ibi Pyramid of Dynasty 8 was constructed very close to the floodplain on very low elevation, which implies that the Nile water levels were very low at this time of the First Intermediate Period (2181–2055 BCE). This finding is in agreement with previous work conducted by Kitchen20 which implies that the sudden collapse of the Old Kingdom in Egypt (after 4160 BCE) was largely caused by catastrophic failure of the annual flood of the Nile River for a period of 30–40 years. Data from soil cores near Memphis indicated that the Old Kingdom settlement is covered by about 3 m of sand11. Accordingly, the Ahramat Branch was initially positioned further west during the Old Kingdom and then shifted east during the Middle Kingdom due to the drought-induced sand encroachments of the First Intermediate Period, “a period of decentralization and weak pharaonic rule” in ancient Egypt, spanning about 125 years (2181–2055 BCE) post Old Kingdom era. Soil cores from the drilling program at Memphis show dominant dry conditions during the First Intermediate Period with massive eolian sand sheets extended over a distance of at least 0.5 km from the edge of the western desert escarpment21. The Ahramat Branch continued to move east during the Second Intermediate Period until it had gradually lost most of its water supply by the New Kingdom.

The western tributaries of the Ahramat Branch

Sentinal-1 radar data unveiled several wide channels (inlets) in the Western Desert Plateau connected to the Ahramat Branch. These inlets are currently covered by a layer of sand, thus partially invisible in multispectral satellite imagery. In Sentinal-1 radar imagery, the valley floors of these inlets appear darker than the surrounding surfaces, indicating subsurface fluvial deposits. These smooth deposits appear dark owing to the specular reflection of the radar signals away from the receiving antenna (Fig. 5a, b)22. Considering that Sentinel-1’s C-Band has a penetration capability of approximately 50 cm in dry sand surface23, this would suggest that the riverbed of these channels is covered by at least half a meter of desert sand. Unlike these former inlets, the course of the Ahramat Branch is invisible in SAR data due in large part to the presence of dense farmlands in the floodplain, which limits radar penetration and the detection of underlying fluvial deposition. Moreover, the radar topographic data from TDX revealed the areal extent of these inlets. Their river courses were extracted from TDX data using the Topographic Position Index (TPI), an algorithm which is used to compute the topographic slope positions and to automate landform classifications (Fig. 5c, d). Negative TPI values show the former riverbeds of the inlets, while positive TPI signify the riverbanks bordering them.

Fig. 5: Using Radar and the Topographic Position Index for mapping major channels (inlets) connected to the Ahramat Branch.
figure 5

a Conceptual sketch of the dependence of surface roughness on the sensor wavelength λ (modified after48). b Expected backscatter characteristics in sandy desert areas with buried dry riverbeds. c Dry channels/inlets masked by desert sand in the Dahshur area. d The channels’ courses were extracted using TPI. Negative TPI values highlight the courses of the channels while positive TPI signify their banks.

Analysis indicated that several of the pyramid’s causeways, from Dynasties 4 and 6, lead to the inlet’s riverbanks (Fig. 6). Among these pyramids, are the Bent Pyramid, the first pyramid built by King Snefru in Dynasty 4 and among the oldest, largest, and best preserved ancient Egyptian pyramids that predates the Giza Pyramids. This pyramid is situated at the royal necropolis of Dahshur. The position of the Bent Pyramid, deep in the desert, far from the modern Nile floodplain, remained unexplained by researchers. This pyramid has a long causeway (~700 m) that is paved in the desert with limestone blocks and is attached to a large valley temple. Although all the pyramids’ valley temples in Egypt are connected to a water body and served as the landing point of all the river-borne visitors, the valley temple of the Bent Pyramid is oddly located deep in the desert, very distant from any waterways and more than 1 km away from the western edge of the modern Nile floodplain. Radar data revealed that this temple overlooked the bank of one of these extinct channels (called Wadi al-Taflah in historical maps). This extinct channel (referred to hereafter as the Dahshur Inlet due to its geographical location) is more than 200 m wide on average (Fig. 6). In light of this finding, the Dahshur Inlet, and the Ahramat Branch, are thus strongly argued to have been active during Dynasty 4 and must have played an important role in transporting building materials to the Bent Pyramid site. The Dahshur Inlet could have also served the adjacent Red Pyramid, the second pyramid built by the same king (King Snefru) in the Dahshur area. Yet, no traces of a causeway nor of a valley temple has been found thus far for the Red Pyramid. Interestingly, pyramids in this site dated to the Middle Kingdom, including the Amenemhat III pyramid, also known as the Black Pyramid, White Pyramid, and Pyramid of Senusret III, are all located at least 1 km far to the east of the Dynasty 4 pyramids (Bent and Red) near the floodplain (Fig. 6), which once again supports the notion of the eastward shift of the Ahramat Branch after the Old Kingdom.

Fig. 6: The Sakkara and Dahshur inlets are connected to the Ahramat Branch.
figure 6

a The two inlets are presently covered by sand, thus invisible in optical satellite imagery. b Radar data, and c TDX topographic data reveal the riverbed of the Sakkara Inlet due to radar signals penetration capability in dry sand. b and c show the causeways of Pepi II and Merenre Pyramids, from Dynasty 6, leading to the Saqqara Inlet. The Valley Temple of Pepi II Pyramid overlooks the inlet riverbank, which indicates that the inlet, and thus Ahramat Branch, were active during Dynasty 6. d Radar data, and e TDX topographic data, reveal the riverbed of the Dahshur Inlet with the Bent Pyramid’s causeway of Dynasty 4 leading to the Inlet. The Valley Temple of the Bent Pyramid overlooks the riverbank of the Dahshur Inlet, which indicates that the inlet and the Ahramat Branch were active during Dynasty 4 of the Old Kingdom.

Radar satellite data revealed yet another sandy buried channel (tributary), about 6 km north of the Dahshur Inlet, to the west of the ancient city of Memphis. This former fluvial channel (referred to hereafter as the Saqqara Inlet due to its geographical location) connects to the Ahramat Branch with a broad river course of more than 600 m wide. Data shows that the causeways of the two pyramids of Pepi II and Merenre, situated at the royal necropolis of Saqqara and dated to Dynasty 6, lead directly to the banks of the Saqqara Inlet (see Fig. 6). The 400 m long causeway of Pepi II pyramid runs northeast over the southern Saqqara plateau and connects to the riverbank of the Saqqara Inlet from the south. The causeway terminates with a valley temple that lies on the inlet’s riverbank. The 250 long causeway of the Pyramid of Merenre runs southeast over the northern Saqqara plateau and connects to the riverbank of the Saqqara Inlet from the north. Since both pyramids dated to Dynasty 6, it can be argued that the water level of the Ahramat Branch was higher during this period, which would have flooded at least the entrance of its western inlets. This indicates that the downstream segment of the Saqqara Inlet was active during Dynasty 6 and played a vital role in transporting construction materials and workers to the two pyramids sites. The fact that none of the Dynasty 5 pyramids in this area (e.g., the Djedkare Isesi Pyramid) were positioned on the Saqqara Inlet suggests that the water level in the Ahramat Branch was not high enough to enter and submerge its inlets during this period.

In addition, our data analysis clearly shows that the causeways of the Khafre, Menkaure, and Khentkaus pyramids, in the Giza Plateau, lead to a smaller but equally important river bay associated with the Ahramat Branch. This lagoon-like river arm is referred to here as the Giza Inlet (Fig. 7). The Khufu Pyramid, the largest pyramid in Egypt, seems to be connected directly to the river course of the Ahramat Branch (Fig. 7). This finding proves once again that the Ahramat Branch and its western inlets were hydrologically active during Dynasty 4 of the Old Kingdom. Our ancient river inlet hypothesis is also in accordance with earlier research, conducted on the Giza Plateau, which indicates the presence of a river and marsh-like environment in the floodplain east of the Giza pyramids2.

Fig. 7: TDX data shows, in 3D, a clear topographic expression of a segment of the former Ahramat Branch in the Nile floodplain in close proximity to the Giza Plateau.
figure 7

The causeways of the four Pyramids lead to an inlet, which we named the Giza Inlet, that connects from the west with the Ahramat Branch. These causeways connect the pyramids with valley temples which acted as river harbors in antiquity. These river segments are invisible in optical satellite imagery since they are masked by the cultivated lands of the Nile floodplain. The photo shows the valley temple of Khafre Pyramid (Photo source: Author Eman Ghoneim).